Friday, April 15, 2011

Chain gang records have genealogical value

Chain gang, Library of Congress

Chain gangs originated in Georgia almost fifty years after the Civil War and were the second type of outdoor convict labor to originally exist.  They ceased to exist in 1960. The other type of labor was prison farm labor. When African American genealogists and family historians who are in search of historical records to document ancestors may find the following resources helpful:
  • census (listed as an inmate)
  • newspaper
  • court records
  • oral history
Antoinette Harrell, genealogist and researcher, has shared an example of a chain gang record:

"As long as I have been conducting genealogical research and attending different seminars, no accredited genealogist has taught me to look at records such as these.  Chain gang records, asylum records, mineral and lease documents, and lynching records, are very important records to consider for documenting ancestors.
Failing to work public road: Chas. Wilson, 25th Judicial Court Record, State of Louisiana, St Helena Parish, 1923

Perhaps the reason African Americans overlook these records is because genealogy has been labeled a hobby which people want to enjoy.  These records are not fun, and once you learn about a family member who was once lost, it takes a long time for the feelings to go away.  We have no problem embracing famous ancestors, but we do not want to embrace the ones who wrestled with the darker side of life.  That is too painful.  We push them back.

Any record that has someone's name, place, event, or a date has genealogical value.  Most of these records are not indexed.  I am creating a database for asylum records, but these record types are difficult to research.  These are possible reasons people try to avoid them," shared Antoinette.
History of the chain gang
    "Chain gangs flourished throughout the South and by the 1920s and 1930s chained prisoners, mostly black, became a common sight along southern roadways. Georgia grasped the economic and social benefits of the chain gang, which soon developed into the “good roads movement.” “Bad boys,” a Georgia folk saying went, “make good roads.” Hired labor and even conscription had proved unreliable in the past, as free men were not disposed to work the roads if they could help it."  See Chain Gangs at Online Encyclopedia.

     Prisoners, who were also women, would be chained together to perform hard labor such as road work, ditch digging, or chipping stone as a form of punishment.  The introduction of the chain gang brought great economic benefits to the South, but the conditions of the unfortunate prisoners caught in the system was much like that of slavery.  From slavery to the convict lease system, the only real difference was that the "master" or one in control went from the plantation owner to the federal government itself under the guise of the United States Agricultural Department's Office of Public Roads.
    Southern Chain Gang, Library of Congress

    "To a southern black prisoner there was little difference between his situation as a slave on the plantation, as a leased convict forced to toil in the coal mine, or as a chained prison worker on the roads. The chained southern black man on the southern county road had been transformed from the plantation owner’s chattel into a “slave of the state.”
    The state now became the actual master responsible for the welfare of a growing pool of forced black labor. Black prisoners labored and even slept together, with chains fastened through their feet and around their ankles. Their rations were infested with maggots. With an armed white overseer, the black convict slaved from sunup to sundown. Brutalities, corporal punishments (beatings with a leather strap, thumpings with rifle butts and clubs) and outright torture, were commonplace. Major atrocities, such as the staking treatment (chaining an inmate between stakes and pouring molasses over his body while flies, bees and other insects crawled all over him); the sweat box treatment (locking a prisoner for days into a wooden box that was neither high enough to stand nor deep enough to sit, while temperatures exceeded one hundred degrees); and the Georgia rack (stretching the inmate between two hooks with a cable and a turn crank) were all meted out for the most trivial disobedience."
     The chain gang was re-introduced:

    See also: Sheriff runs female chain gang

    For lectures, interviews,  and more information on the subject of peonage, contact:
    Antoinette Harrell  504-858-4658

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    1. Thanks for this information. I found an ancestor who was arrested for not working on the public road and while I appreciate this post that will help me in my search for more information about him.

    2. I am so glad, Dionne, that Antoinette shared this record type so you would be able to have something to compare. I hope you will be able to access the court records in the appropiate area for your ancestor.

      Most of these record types are found among the crimimal court records in the county or parish where the event took place.

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